24 January 2014

Sochi, Sports, Stress and Success

     As cameras close-in on the Russian Alps, expectations begin to tower like chips at a Vegas casino table.  Besides bets on the Super Bowl game, there’s speculation about Olympic medal counts with oddsmakers sure to chime-in. Yet, we don’t hear complaints from the athletes about the arctic conditions for Super Bowl Sunday nor do we hear much about terrorist attack fear from the Olympians. Their focus, their love is to participate. And as a result of practice, finely tuned management skills and commitment, their energies and drive funnel in one direction— success, blocking out any and all distractions. Much like a steeplechase, the competitors move fluidly in one direction to insure victory. Without the horse who provides the physical prowess and talent, the team will fail. Conversely, without the rider who provides judgment and leadership, the team would not collaborate. Truly, the physical and the mental dichotomy equally contribute to a championship finish.

     Speaking of horses, horses and horse-based sports are my passion. Not only do they give me the sense of being more powerful and more courageous than I would be without them, but their history of healing hearts and serving as wartime partners is legendary. Yes, they can be dangerous, but they also have to the power to bring a smile to the saddest of faces with just a nicker.

      In my novel, Beautiful Evil Winter, Sophia survives a grisly horrifying mishap with a horse only to face trauma and terror again in the hospital ER. What’s next—does she leverage the irreversible tragedy or walk away? Is it possible for a nightmarish event to be empowering and fortifying? Since the vast majority of people participate or participated in sports and deal with the ensuing challenges, I invited Dr. Matt Johnson, a sports psychologist, to be the guest for this month’s blog.

     Dr. Johnson’s varied client list includes 6 year old baseball players, Olympic athletes and professional golfers. While quarterbacking for Notre Dame with Coach Lou Holtz at the helm, Dr. Johnson became interested in sports psychology. After winning three of four bowl games with the Notre Dame team, he earned a Masters and PhD in Sports Psychology. As an accomplished athlete, Dr. Johnson has the unique insights of someone “who has walked the walk and talked the talk.” Interestingly enough, the psychology of sports also translates well in the business world.

     First of all, thanks Dr. Johnson for accepting the invitation to sit-in with us. I want to discuss a few questions that many competitors struggle with as they enter the sports arena.

1)     What do Olympic athletes know about mental preparation that the average person doesn’t?

Two important mental aspects of Olympic athletes are commitment and coping.  Olympic athletes have to make a total commitment to their sport and their training.  That becomes the priority in their life resulting in making sacrifices in other areas such as their education, relationships, and family.  So, they have to make some tough decisions.  Olympic athletes develop coping plans for when things don’t go as planned.  For example, a swimmer has a mental game plan for coping with their goggles falling off or missing a turn.  Similarly, runners have a mental game plan for coping with being passed in the middle of the race. 

2)     How does one remain relaxed, happy and focused before a competition? Personally speaking, I become so intense that the fun escapes me.

This varies by athlete, as many are not feeling “happy” before competition but rather anxious.  It’s important to know that feeling anxious or nervous before competition is okay and normal.  The key is how you interpret those feelings.  Specifically, you want to remind yourself that those feelings are “okay and normal” and it is your body’s way of preparing to take action.  The joints are getting loosened up.  The blood is being pumped to your arms and legs.  You want to focus on what you love about what you are doing, what you want to do in competition, and on your past successes.  I work with athletes to develop a Pre-Competition Mental Game Plan and have them rehearse it before they ever get to the competition so they know exactly what to focus on when they arrive at the competition site.  AND, they have a clear plan on how to interpret the anxious feelings they KNOW are going to come.  Some recent research has suggested that viewing it as I described above may be more helpful than trying to calm yourself down. 

3)     What mantra should an athlete latch onto before an important competition?

First of all, when working with an athlete, we discuss that there is no one “important competition”.  When you view one competition as more important than another, you are creating unnecessary pressure on yourself.  Whether it is for a local competition or a national championship, the goal is to perform your skills as best you can.  Second, mantras depend on the sport and the athlete, as I want to make it specific to what we (the athlete and myself) are working on.  However, it should be something simple and clear.  Some examples include “Let’s see what you can do” for perfectionists (as opposed to “You have to do well” or “You have to be perfect”); “relax, reach, and throw” (the water) for free-style swimmers; “Stay within myself and run my race plan” for runners; “Trust my swing” for golfers.

4)     What’s the best way to memorize dressage tests and hunter jumper courses to avoid forgetfulness?

The best way is to practice under pressure situations.  If you can know the test or course before you get to the competition site, then you should practice it repeatedly under competition situations such as having judges there (they can be friends or family), a crowd (family, friends, or imagine one), have a visual clock/timer, and the test or course.  You should go through warm-ups as well just like you would prior to the test/course.  If you can’t simulate it in a practice situation, then visualize it from warm-up to finish.  If you don’t know the test/course prior, then break-it down into chunks when you are memorizing it:  part 1, part 2, part 3, etc.  Visualize yourself in part 1 repeatedly, then visualize part 2, etc. If you have time, visualize part 1 plus part 2 and build from there.  Just minutes before you actually compete you should remind yourself to “trust it and go”.  Trust yourself and go for it rather than worrying about mistakes. 

5)     Someone once said, “Some days, you’re the bug; some days, you’re the windshield.” What’s your advice for surviving the “bug days” at a competition?

I think of it as A, B, and C game days.  Every athlete has C game days when their timing is way off, it’s very difficult to focus, and “nothing seems to be going right”.  When athletes ask me, “How do I prevent ever having C game days?”  I half jokingly tell them, “My best advice to guarantee you won’t have C game days is to stop playing your sport.” Many athletes feel sorry for themselves and say things like, “Why am I playing so horrible after all the practice I put in?  It’s not fair.”  As a former athlete, I can relate and I empathize.  However, I then discuss how worrying about “fairness” leads you away from the reality of the situation.  Next, we talk about having a C Game Day Plan.  We discuss what specifically happens on C game days, how to recognize it, and creating a plan to respond to it.  We focus on the fundamentals of the sport in the plan and on keeping things simple. 

6)     What’s the most effective way to conquer fear and return to a sport after being injured?

It’s important to change the images of what you see.  All injured athletes that I’ve worked with that have re-entry fears see themselves re-injuring themselves in their mind.  You have to work at changing the images to see what you want to have happen instead of what you don’t.  There is often more in-depth work with re-entry fears such as a discussion of commitment to breaking through the fear as well as a need to “get back on the horse” so to say, to go back into the environment where the injury occurred to work through it.

7)     What is the toughest sport mentally and physically?

That’s an interesting question because my experience is that every athlete or coach thinks their sport is the most demanding mentally.  Golfers focus on the challenge of having to manage their mind for 4-5 hours a round as well as hit a little white ball towards a small target consistently.  Football players talk about mental toughness needed to enduring harsh physical contact.  Tennis players discuss the mental grind of playing on a hot surface in hot weather.  Swimmers practice twice a day during season.  In my opinion, each sport has unique mental challenges.  I just focus on training each athlete or team to be best equipped to embrace the mental challenges in their sport.

Thanks, Dr. Johnson. Many people can benefit from this advice.
To contact Dr. Johnson, the following information should be helpful-
E-mail address: DrMattSJohnson@yahoo.com
Phone number: 817-564-4460
His website is www.drmattjohnson.com.


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